Turkey's attack on Russian jet is foreign policy nightmare - Austrian ex-chancellor

The terror alert is spreading across Europe, engendering fear and resentment. While police forces sweep the European cities in an attempt to get to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) sleeper cells, debate rages over how to deal with incoming refugees. Tensions are running high in countries trying to combat a common enemy. Is a unified anti-IS coalition possible? Can Europe protect its borders? And how do you stop the idea of jihadism infecting young minds? We ask former chancellor and foreign minister of Austria, a member of the Valdai club: Wolfgang Schussel is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Wolfgang Schussel former Chancellor and foreign minister of Austria, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us. Now, a NATO country, Turkey, has shot down a Russian bomber in Syria, claiming it strayed into Turkish airspace. When a Turkish plane was shot for violating Syrian airspace, mr. Erdogan dubbed it an "attack with no excuse"  - now, when a Russian plane is shot by Turkey in similar circumstances, it's an "appropriate self-defence". How this ambiguous stance of a NATO member and an EU candidate is viewed in Europea? Why is Turkey changing its stance when it feels like it? What's European take on that? 

Wolfgang Schussel: I think it's a nightmare incident, what happened a few days ago. This is exactly what some military experts warned about - there were repeated warning that there could be a clash between two nations in this already overcrowded Syrian sky. I think, what is needed is more cooperation and coordination. And, I think, the response of Turkey, even if there would be some incidents, let's say, for 2-5 seconds crossing a border land, it's not an appropriate reaction for that. So, I think, what is needed is a military coordination in this very disputed area.

SS: But also, the way we look at it, this incident with the fighter jet has only highlighted Turkey's dubious behaviour towards ISIS. I mean, the alleged buying of smuggled oil from terrorists, allowing militant movement back and forth over the border and attacking Kurds who are fighting ISIS. Why has this been tolerated by members of the anti-ISIS coalition for so long?

WS: I think it was criticised. Turkey can do much more to fight ISIS, but they are concentrated to fight or to separate or to isolate the Turkish fighters. The Peshmerga, as you know, is a staunch ally against ISIL or ISIS, and Turkey could also do more to stop the influx of foreign recruits a route to Syria. You mentioned the oil smuggling... so I think, a lot can be done, also to stop refugees, uncontrolled flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe. So I think Turkey should do more and on the summit of the EU and Turkey, I'm sure a lot of our member-states will ask Turkey to do much more.

SS: So you think on that summit Turkey is going to be asked by the allies to get its anti-terror act together? Because, "criticising" and actually pressuring Turkey to do this are two different things.

WS: Yeah, but you know, summit is a diplomatic effort to bring up different ideas and to coordinate the political actions, and I think it's an important meeting. I would not underestimate the impetus and a potential influx on the Turkish policy. I hope it will work. 

SS: NATO said in October it is ready to defend Turkey against Russia. It now has taken a much more cautious tone. Why the change? 

WS: It should not be, so to say, confrontation of NATO and Russia. I think what is needed is direct talks between Turkey and Russia and I hope, I got some information that there's an already planned meeting between Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Turkish foreign minister. They should discuss it, and, anyway, there is a strong need to coordinate military efforts. If Russia - and I would support it - would become a member of the coalition against ISIS and ISIL, there's a need to coordinate the actions, the moves, the targets, et cetera.

SS: Now, while the anti-terror campaign in Syria is ramping up, in Europe operations following the Paris attacks are also in full swing. All of Austria's neighbors - Italy, Hungary, Germany - they're on high terror alert in case of another attack. Why isn't Austria on such an alert? Is Austria confident it's safe, I mean, feeling no need to raise the threat level? Is Austria equipped to handle such a threat? 

WS:I think, everybody is on alert and rightly so: because nobody can feel safe and secure or exempt from terror attacks from Al-Qaeda, Daesh, ISIL, ISIS - call it what you want. I think what we learned during the last years, months, or weeks or days is that nothing is guaranteed. We're fighting for our way of life, to entertain us, to love, to listen to music, to meet, to speak freely. This is an attack against all of us, an attack against our values. So I think we all have to be united and no one should think he or she is exempt from being a target of these terrorists. This is our common enemy, and we should also prioritise our action. In the moment, the most urgent priority is to fight against ISIS, and then the rest should be settled. Political, diplomatic effort to settle something, a diplomatic or political solution for Syria - that's for sure, this is needed, but now the most important priority is to fight the Islamic forces.

SS: BVT, the Austrian counter-terror agency is saying Austria is home to some 250 Islamist extremists. The Brussels’ suburb of Molenbeck was a safe haven for terrorists for a long time. Why are well-off places like Brussels or Vienna are becoming hubs of global jihadism? Why do they feel so comfortable and safe, operating from these places? What's your opinion?

WS: I don't think that Vienna is a safe place. I really trust our police and our intelligence. They have a lot of information about some suspected fundamentalists. Of course, you cannot stop someone leaving the country. I'm not sure if the numbers are right - 150 or 200 people leaving Austria, and from other countries as well, but we are very alert of those who are coming back. I think we have a very effective network of police and intelligence. 

SS: But, you know, still after the Paris attacks you can't help but wonder that the counter-terror agencies can't really contain the threat the way we would have liked to. How do you keep tabs on thousands of potential extremists anyways? Especially, when there is a community they can blend into easily?

WS: We have, normally, a relatively good contact and network with the different communities - with Islamic community... They are reasonable people, they are absolutely against these terrorist or these jihadists or these extreme groupings - we have, by the way, invented and decided on a specific Islamic law, which is quite impressive, it could be an example for other European countries, to stop financing from outside, to stop training and teaching imams from outside, it should be European Islam, which we have to teach to the young imams, and we have to control what is going on in our mosques and the Muslim schools  - and I think we are quite effective on that, because Austria has a good tradition. Since more than 100 years Islam is a recognised religion in Austria, so until now the things are calm, but we are on alert, this is true.

SS: Now, once again, the BVT said systematic efforts are being made within Austria to radicalize and recruit people for the war in Syria. Why are European countries incapable of preventing this trend? 

WS: The problem is, we know that some people left. The real problem would be if they are to come back - then, so to say, it is a crime, leaving the country to fight in Syria or in Iraq is a crime, according to Austrian law. We are very aware that we have to protect ourselves and our cities, and so there will be no tolerance at all for these fundamentalists, no doubt about it.

SS: But I am talking about the recruitment - why are people going to fight for ISIS from Europe, from well-off families, from good backgrounds, you know. You have generations of Muslims whose parents were never radical and now they are super-radical, and they're easily recruitable by these terrorists? What is this trend that the European countries can't fight? 

WS: Because this cannot be done easily top-down. What is important is to have the family, to have the peer groups, to have other young people, to have the mosques, the reasonable people convincing these potentially interested young guys to leave the country that it's not true. We were quite successful, we had some successes on that, to keep people who were originally interested to leave the country and to fight in Syria - to keep them in Austria. But of course, there's no 100% guarantee. This would be absolutely silly if I would pretend that it is possible to protect 100% of these young guys not to fight in Syria. This is a kind of "youth cult", this is a problem for me. I see that there's a tendency that some Islamic groups are inventing, with the Internet, with rap and all these things that are kind of "youth culture", and this is quite attractive for some of them. So we have to be very cautious. 

SS: After the Paris terror attacks, gun sales spiked in Austria, businesses are running out of shotguns to sell. Are Austrians buying guns because citizens don't trust government to protect them?

WS: I think trust deficit could be much dangerous than budget deficits, and I think, to restore trust means that we have to show some successes. We have to show that we are able to protect the external border of Europe. We are able to deliver some jihadists to the court, to bring them to justice. We have to show that we are able, not only in Austria, but in all European countries, to stop potential attackers from finding their targets and fulfilling their negative and criminal aspirations. So, it is important to show and to deliver.

SS: The head of the Austrian right-wing Freedom Party has called for a European island prison for suspected terrorists, something like America's Guantanamo. Do you think this will help? 

WS: No. I think, the prison is not the right answer. What is important in my opinion is to protect the external border. I think, now, it's the time to create this kind of a European border force, protecting and guarding, 8 thousand or 10 thousand of the land border and 14 thousand sea border. And what Americans said, by the way, for 60 years, it was not the prison, but they had Ellis Island and Ellis Island was the place where those people who wanted to immigrate into the U.S. had to have the procedure to ask and to answer some questions from the authorities, and in the end they could enter - or not. I think, something like that is important, it is necessary - not a prison, but a kind of Ellis Island for the EU. 

SS: So, do I understand correctly that you're worried about terrorists entering Europe posing as asylum seekers? Because, are European border agencies capable of screening all arrivals at this point? 

WS: Not now, not now, you are completely right, this is the real question, and what I propose is a new agency, a new European external border force. This is necessary, the national governments alone cannot do it - look at Greece, they had, per day, an influx of 3-4 thousand immigrants, or refugees, coming to the Greek island, and on some weekends more than 30,000 people came to Greece. I think, there's a need to support Greece or Italy and to help to establish a kind of a common European external border force.

SS: So this prototype for Ellis Island, where would you propose to have it? 

WS: This is not up to me...

SS: No, but you know, I think it's a great idea, where would you put it in ideal world? 

WS: This was a proposal by, I think, Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian, who proposed he will by 2-3 today not inhabited islands in Greece and will install the flats and the apartments and houses, and he could organise infrastructure for such a thing. It needs, of course, the green light from the Greek government and the support and cooperation from European institutions. I think it's a great idea.

SS: You think European institutions will go after something like that, because they haven't really echoed anything after the proposal? 

WS: No, I think the first idea to create hotspots is close to this idea, and I think if we develop the idea a little bit further in this direction, what Sawiris has proposed - why not? I think it would be a great success!

SS: Back to the border control. Systematic border checks of migrants only began last week. What do you do about those who have already entered the EU? What should be Austria doing?

WS: To give the numbers, according to my knowledge, but I think the facts are quite right. Austria alone had, from the beginning of this year, around 800,000 people, crossing our borders - some were in transfer to Germany or later then, to Scandinavia, but 100,000 stayed in Austria and applied for asylum. This is a huge burden, and, honestly, I'm proud of Austrian civil society and the authorities, that without any incident, without any violent attack, without any crimes committed in such difficult times, we made and we succeeded with these things. Germany, for instance, until the end of this year will have probably more, around or more, than 1,000,000 refugees. So, this is something which is an extraordinary burden for everybody. We can do it, we can manage it now, but if this is to continue in the next years to come, it is impossible. So, therefore, again, we need to close and to protect and to guard our external borders, leaving open, of course, a legal channel for asylum-seekers who deserve support and aid from our side.

SS: But you know what many are saying, right? Many are saying: "all of these measures are great and screening incoming migrants is also a great idea, but why does it have to happen only after so many innocent people died in Paris?" 

WS: No, this is not true. The fact is that we were discussing this for the whole summer before the Paris tragic events happened. We had 2 or 3 European Council meetings, and much more of ministers' meetings, of Interior, Foreign Affairs, et cetera. No, this is not true. What is needed, of course, is a coordinate effort to support and to finance the UN food program. To support Lebanon and Jordan, and of course, use Turkey with the refugee camps that are already established. And, of course, it is also necessary to help Greece, because this country is in a lot of economic troubles and, as well, needs the support of the EU. So, we are working along these lines, but of course, it takes some time to coordinate 28 member-states. It was easier with 6 member states, with 12 member states - today it is a little bit more complicated. But, we can do it. We have to. 

SS: EU border agency, Frontex, has no access to operational intelligence. How is it expected, or how is it possible to trace terror suspects? 

WS: But this is not, exactly, the job of Frontex. Frontex has a different task and a different obligation. Frontex is, so to say, to guard, but with very limited means - this is also a kind of a voluntary - it's an agency, but so to say, the means, the instruments, the financing, the budget is not up to the challenge today. This has all declined from the ‘sunshine times’ when you had, let's say, several hundreds or several thousand asylum-seekers per month. Now, alone in November, we had two, three hundred thousand asylum seekers all over Europe. This is impossible, this year we will have probably between 2 and 3 mn asylum-seekers in Europe. So, Frontex must improve its mandate, must get an appropriate financing out of the EU budget, not by voluntary means. This requires a lot of decision making process in the next months and weeks to come. I hope it is possible to break over the winter time to have it in spring. 

SS: A lot of people blame the Paris attacks on how the French security services and intelligence services work in general and the powers that they have. Austrian intelligence also faces a number of legal restrictions in their work. For instance, they aren't allowed to search for social network profiles for evidence, even though, in this day and age terrorists use social networks extensively. Should security services be given broader powers? What do you think? 

WS: We were discussing this at my party, the People's Party, which is the government party. It is proposing to strengthen and to force a little bit, not a little bit, but in a significant way, the powers of police and intelligence. There's also the need to cooperating between the intelligence and the protection forces all over Europe. As you have seen in Paris, the people were planning the whole thing maybe in Syria, operating from Belgium, doing the crime in Paris. So, there's need for everybody inside the EU and outside the EU to share intelligence, to work together, to be much more effective. People expect that. 

SS: After 9\11, the U.S. responded with the Patriot Act, coupled with extensive NSA surveillance. The Americans have only missed one attack since then. Is Europe ready for a move like that? Will Europeans accept that?

WS: That's a good question. I'm not sure, because the people, the electorate is used to the golden times - no security, or minor security threats, defence budgets went down, if you look at the last two decades, the Americans increased military budget, Russia increased military budget and China, ninefold, increased military budget, and European Union decreased by minus 20% - this means, in real terms, they halved, they cut the budget by a half.  Numbers of soldiers are reduced... So, I think, there's a need for Europe to wake up and to take the common security policy very serious. There's a need to take foreign policy and defence matters very seriously. 

SS: Chancellor Werner Faymann said measures like shutting down borders in the wake of migrant crisis will lead to chaos, and are a quite capitulation of the EU. At same time, Austria is planning a barbed wire fence on the border with Slovenia. Is there no way to stick to the EU's ideals of free movement in this situation? 

WS: We have two options - either we protect the external border and then you can keep the Schengen zone and the borders within the Schengen zone and within the EU open. This is my priority. I think, most of the people would agree, 90% are absolutely in favor of that. Or, if it is not possible, if we aren't able and willing in delivering protection of our external border, then the alternative is to protect your own country. This would lead to a cacophony and a follow up of fences and fences and fences, which is not good because this is the end of an open area within the Schengen zone. But this is not my priority, and I think most of the European leaders are of the same opinion. It is a need to keep the borders open, but if we want to do that, we have to establish a common protection of the external border. 

SS: Thank you so much, we were talking to Wolfgang Schussel , ex-Chancellor and Foreign Minister of Austria, discussing the way the EU is dealing with the fallout of the Paris attacks and its other challenges. It's been great talking to you, that's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.